How Psychedelics and Meditation Both Promote Healing

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAP) and meditation have repeatedly been shown to be effective treatments for a broad range of maladies. They can also improve the lives of those who don’t have significant medical or psychological problems.

On the surface, these two things seem completely different. Taking a powerful, mind-altering drug seems to be the opposite polar of sitting calmly with eyes closed. Is there some fundamental similarity in how they help promote healing? If so, is that fundamental similarity telling us something important about the human psyche?

I argue that both PAP and meditation induce the experience of transcendence—transcending space, time, and ego—which, I posit, is the cause of their therapeutic effect. That the experience of transcendence can help us tell us something important about the human condition.

Psychedelic Transcendence

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PAP and Meditation are Effective Therapies

A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials found significant efficacy of PAP for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression associated with a life-threatening illness, unipolar depression, and social anxiety. PAP has also shown safety and efficacy for a number of “treatment resistant” conditions.

Psychedelics may also have protective mental health effects. According to a 2015 Journal of Psychopharmacology study a single psychedelic ingestion at any time in one’s life was associated with significantly reduced odds of psychological distress, past year suicidal thinking, past year suicidal planning, and past year suicide attempt, whereas the use of other illicit drugs was associated with an increased likelihood of these outcomes. In addition, psychedelics appear to have significant benefits for “healthy normals.”

Studies have shown numerous benefits from meditation, too. Meditation reduces stress, controls anxiety, reduces depression symptoms, promotes emotional health, reduces age-related memory loss, helps fight addictions, improves sleep, helps control pain, decreases blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, and more.

Not only does meditation help various medical and psychological problems, but a long-term meditation practice has also been shown to improve many aspects of its practitioners’ lives. An article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that there is a growing base of empirical literature that shows that long-term meditators have “enhanced functioning, including elevated physical health and resistance to disease, increased immunity to aging and cognitive processing, greater resilience and improved fearlessness, (and) more self -less and pro-social behaviors.”

Why Are PAP and Meditation Effective Therapies?

It is my contention that the reason PAP and meditation can heal us, and improve us, is that both induce the experience of transcendence of space, time, and ego. A review article concerning psychedelics concluded that mystical experiences, which entail the transcendence of space, time, and ego, are “a key mediator of the sustained psychological benefits reported in both healthy and clinical populations.”

What is left to experience after one transcends space, time, and ego? Many subjects undergoing PAP, and advanced meditators, report that transcendent to space, time, and ego they experience consciousness itself—they become conscious of their own consciousness. It is my contention that this experience is the cause of the therapeutic benefits of PAP and meditation.

Transcendence During PAP

Transcendence of space, time, and ego are often experienced during PAP, the experiencer’s consciousness leaving to experience itself. In his book about psychedelics, How to Change Your MindMichael Pollan writes of his own such experience:

“The sovereign ego… was simply no more… Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content. There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.”

Later in the same book, he writes that his psychedelic journeys have taught him “what the Buddhists try to tell us… that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; In fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress.”

Transcendence During Meditation

According to Walter Stace, a scholar of mysticism, the core of meditation is the experience of transcendence of time, space, and ego. According to Stace, the Buddhist concept of experiencing emptiness during meditation, or sunyata, is an egoless experience of “no time, no space, no becoming.”

Similarly, transcendental consciousness, which is a state achieved through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) or other Vedic meditations, the individual’s mind transcends all mental activity, thereby having the experience of being unbounded by time, space, and ego. This results in the experience of consciousness experiencing itself. A study of descriptions of transcendental consciousness from 52 subjects practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique found three themes: absence of time, space, and body sense.

The Buddha, Transcendence, and Healing

Is the healing caused by transcendence somehow a fundamental part of the solution to life’s basic problems? Are the benefits of PAP and meditation telling us something important about our human condition? It is my own belief that the Buddha’s four noble truths, which he said were the essence of his teaching, are telling us that transcendence is one of the keys to healing. The Buddha said:

  1. Life is not ultimately satisfying.
  2. Dissatisfaction with life comes from cravings and desire.
  3. Cravings and desire can be overcome by enlightenment.
  4. Enlightenment is attainable by anyone if they behave correctly, are disciplined, and practice meditation.

Enlightenment is brought on by the repeated experience of transcendence during meditation (see my blog about meditation and enlightenment here). It is my understanding that the Buddha’s four noble truths are telling us that built into the human condition is a pernicious and corrosive dissatisfaction with our lives and that repeated experiences of transcendence during meditation will heal that dissatisfaction. It is not much of a leap to suggest that this dissatisfaction with life, growing year after year without respite, will make us mentally and physically sick. PAP offers a respite from this dissatisfaction through transcendence. A more reliable and permanent respite via meditation, according to the Buddha, is the preferred solution.

Recommendation

As a primary-care physician for over thirty-five years, it is my opinion that for those patients who are unwilling or unable to practice long-term meditation, and who have significant psychological problems, PAP has proven to be a safe and effective therapy . It should be made available to those patients. But, as the Buddha pointed out, a long-term meditation practice can also be fundamental to our healing.

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